Business blooming for Hong Kong floral artist Gemma Hayden Blest

Floral artist lets Kylie Knott in on a few tricks of the trade, and reveals her favourite place in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 3:00pm

It is easy to identify Gemma Hayden Blest in a busy Central coffee shop. She is the one holding a large metal bucket overflowing with mainly roses and berries in a mix of reds. Blest pulls up a chair and plonks the colourful tools of her trade on the floor.

Her works are full of imaginative twists, and often appear in photo shoots for fashion magazines and installations for big brands. Most of her more than 1,500 Instagram posts feature flowers shot in Blest’s soft and romantic signature style.

British-born Blest says her love affair with flowers stems from her great-grandmother, who was a florist and a judge at the Chelsea Flower Show – the country’s premier battle of the blooms.

“There were always bunches of fresh flowers in the house when I was growing up and the garden was always alive – climbing roses everywhere. This is where elements of my work come from,” says Blest, who works in Hong Kong and Los Angeles. She also visits a lot of international flower markets. “Every major city has a flower market. The one in Mexico City was just amazing. The Day of the Dead celebrations were a mix of amazing flowers.”

She also tries to keep her environmental footprint to a minimum.

“Of course I think about the eco footprint in Hong Kong; it's hard but I try to forage a lot. In LA a lot of the flowers are local – there’s a lot of succulents and bougainvillea. I’m always there with my snippers at the car door. It’s a little harder in Hong Kong – there is the environmental footprint but it’s no different to a restaurant – a lot of what we do these days has to be transported.

“You try to minimise your footprint, recycle the plastic the flowers come in … I have a tiny balcony where I grow. I use a lot of ferns – they grow really well here.”

Blest says 1920 themes such as The Great Gatsby are popular and she has a lot of fun researching that era. “I spend a lot of time looking through vintage books to find out the flowers of the day. They are very time specific. And prices vary so much. When I started doing flowers, I’d give a quote for a bunch of peonies and then realise the only place growing them at that time of the year was New Zealand and the price I quoted was way off… They were my very early disasters.”

Blest, with a background in arts, started out in fashion.

“I love fashion and still work a lot in the industry but my time in the industry didn’t really turn out the way I expected. I interned for Alexander McQueen – he was so experimental and used a lot of props, especially flowers and feathers. But it wasn’t real and not as creative as I thought it would be. There was so much admin work. From McQueen I ended up at Burberry and it was all about administration.”

She then worked in set design before moving on to floral art.

Blest’s love for flowers has also seen her branch out into botanicals. “I press flowers but that’s a bit of a hobby, I press them in Perspex. It’s nice to have something that lasts a bit longer.”

Flowers really have a versatile role, she says – they are used in almost every life celebration. “The arrival of a baby, a wedding, a funeral … people often think that what I do is niche but when you think about it it’s really broad.

“Timing is everything and it’s crucial to get it right. When you’re dealing with roses and lilies you have to leave things to the very last second – it’s a constant battle. There’s only so much work you can do in advance. You’re also at the mercy of the weather – if you set up too early and it rains, then everything’s ruined. Quite often I work with a tight schedule and find myself saying ‘Right I’ve got two hours – let’s go’.

“So it’s all about judging with time. Things change – there’s some manipulation. If I want a rose to open then I can sit it in hot water. There are a few tricks of the trade.”

While many might find the city lacking in colour, Blest sees hues everywhere. As for her favourite place in Hong Kong, it’s not surprising that it is the flower market in Mong Kok.